‘He Died Easier Than the People He Killed’

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Vicheika Kann and Reaksmey Hul in Phnom Penh, and Chenda Hong in Washington contributed to this report.

In his most recent photos, Nuon Chea looks like somebody’s grandfather, wearing big dark glasses that suggest a sensitivity to light possibly tied to other medical problems.

Not that long ago, he’d gone from tottering as he walked to using a wheelchair. There were whispers of liver problems and kidney troubles and whatever else happens as a human body passes through its ninth decade.

That longevity eluded some 1.7 million Cambodians who died between 1975 to 1979, as the Khmer Rouge tried, and failed, to turn Cambodia into a self-sufficient agrarian utopia. Nuon Chea, known as Brother No. 2, is widely believed to have been the mastermind behind the development of a Maoist society without money, religion or intellectuals envisioned by the regime’s founder,

FILE: Khmer Rouge ‘Brother Number Two’ Nuon Chea attends a public hearing at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, October 19, 2011.

Silent as to actions

If Nuon Chea was the mastermind behind Cambodia’s genocide, the details died with him. He never spoke in court of how the Khmer Rouge executed their plan to achieve a new regime. He never admitted guilt. He maintained that the Khmer Rouge were nationalists, fighting Viet Nam, and the United States, which engaged “secret” bombings of Cambodia as it tracked the communist Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.

Cambodian Prime Minister

Cambodian former Khmer Rouge survivors, Soum Rithy, left, and Chum Mey, right, embrace each other after the verdicts were announced at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014.

Knows history

Yuth Kunthea, a 25-year-old resident of Siem Reap, does know about Noun Chea and the Khmer Rouge.

“I’m not sorry that he died because he caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people, he hurt people, and separated them from their family members,” she said, adding she learned about the regime in school. “We lost a lot of good Khmer people.”

The Khmer Rouge buried the bodies in mass graves, dubbed “killing fields,” like the one near Trung Bat, in northern Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge maintained a prison and a crematorium.

Many of the remains were ground down to make fertilizer in an effort to meet quotas for the rice crop. Others, like those found by soil excavators in 2012, were buried intact with arms bound behind them or weighed down by rocks, according to the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM). 

“No one can forget him,” said Lat Lon, a 73-year-old monk from Teputhyvong Temple, the site of a mass grave, in Siem Reap province. “We have no peace of mind. They tortured people, so he deserved to die. People should have peace of mind.”

According to Buddhist beliefs, even though Noun Chea and other Khmer Rouge leaders are dead, the souls of their victims and those who survived still do not have a peaceful mind. 

“How can they have peace of mind?” Lat Lon asked. “According to the Dharma, dead people still miss their family members.”

‘He died with sin’

Youk Chhang, the DC-CAM executive director in Phnom Penh and a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, told VOA Khmer by phone that Nuon Chea cannot escape his deeds in death despite the law’s presumption of innocence.

“He was born like all of us but he committed sins and he died with sin,” he said. 

Nuon Chea died without the dignity that comes with age, said Youk Chhang, and his death is drawing mixed reactions. 

“Some I asked immediately [after Nuon Chea died] said they are not happy because when he was alive, he was defiant about what he had done,” Youk Chhang said. “He did not … give a value of the history to the next generation.” Even after the verdict, “he was still defiant for what he did and he was responsible.”

Documentary filmmaker Thet Sambath interviewed Nuon Chea extensively in the late 1990s, and then co-produced the 2009 award-winning documentary “Enemies of the People,” about the Khmer Rouge leadership. Just after Nuon Chea’s death, Thet Sambath, who lives in Massachusetts, told VOA Khmer by phone that he was grateful to Nuon Chea for “giving me historical documents and secret stories about the Khmer Rouge,” he said. “It’s very lucky for Cambodian people” to have this information, he added.

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